Steve Charles—It’s alarming how illness can slowly drag those we love out of our sight, out of the essential role they play in our daily lives. A friend and co-worker misses work a few days, then weeks, then months. You keep deluding yourself; she’ll be back someday, you say.
But the weeks pass, the latest project and deadlines preoccupy you, and soon you hear that this person who used to be so much a part of you is spending her days, every minute, fighting for her life.
That’s what Susan Cantrell, senior writer for our Wabash Public Affairs team, is doing today in Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis. A series of health issues over the past several years have converged to put her there, but learning of her fight reminded me of how much we’ve missed her here at Wabash.
When I interviewed for my job at Wabash 12 years ago, Susan was the last person to talk with me. I’d been a nervous wreck meeting with all the deans and directors, but Susan’s disarming laugh and warm welcome put me at ease. Soon she had me talking about the things that mattered to me—things that, in my anxiety, I’d set aside trying to impress or figure out the deans.
As scores of Wabash students and professors that she has interviewed over the years will tell you, Susan creates a safe place for conversation. It’s both her vocation and simply who she is. She’s done it professionally as an aide for Senator Charles Percy, in her work with CBS in New York where she interviewed the social and political elite of the city, and she’s done it at Wabash as director of public relations and senior writer.
But she’s created that same safe space for years for her colleagues here at Wabash. And on that day 12 years she helped me to ask the one question I needed answered about Wabash.
“Is this a place you can believe in?” I asked her at the end of the interview. “Is this a place where the work you do can make a difference?"
Susan didn’t hesitate.
“Oh yes,” she said. She warned me that, like all institutions, Wabash had its quirks and flaws, some endearing, some enraging.
“But, yes, Wabash is a place you can believe in.”
Then, without realizing it, she proved it to me. She spoke about the people she loved here. “Love” is the only way to accurately describe it. Professors whose intellect, concerns for their students, integrity, or wisdom inspired her. Students whose curiosity and guts amazed her. Men and women, alumni and staff members whose knowledge or compassion had left her in awe.
She talked a little about the history of Wabash, but in terms of its people. (She had just written “The Pioneer Papers,” some of the best writing ever done about the College.) For Susan, Wabash has always been about the people. I left her office wanting to become a part of this place she so loved.
For 12 years as I’ve watched Susan’s roles at the College change, one thing hasn’t—her ability to show us why the person she’s writing about should matter to us. That, and her insistence that we matter to each other more than we dare say.
I’ve tried to learn that from her as she’s edited my work, written for me, or advised me regarding Wabash Magazine. I’ve tried to drink that in whenever I hear her laugh (probably the most recognizable laugh on campus), remembering how she truly delights in others and always takes time for them.
And now, writing this, I realize I’ve been in denial for many months, afraid to face the fact that it’s unlikely that Susan will be back working with us again, at least in the way we have worked together before.
I mourn that loss.
But Susan’s life has always been so much more than work. So call this a prayer—may Susan survive this latest illness, just as she has so many others. May she draw on the same power that creates that wonderful laugh of hers, and may she not be alone in her fight. May we see her again, soon, and begin to figure out together how we navigate that transition from co-worker to friend in this Wabash community that she loves. A transition we’ll all face someday.
For now, I’ll send a card. Cards and messages seem so inane and without power in the face of a debilitating illness. But Susan believes in the power of words, the surprising impact of the quiet, kind gesture. Her own words about Wabash professors, alumni, and students have been envelopes of light for so many during her years working here. She could use some sent her way now.
Indianapolis, IN 46202